Green Building Innovation

Change Agent:
20 Years of Sustainability at UBC

Building Up

UBC is at the forefront of redefining what ‘green’ buildings and communities can be, for our campuses and beyond. With more than 400 institutional and residential buildings on campus, our energy footprint is sizeable — but we are shrinking it by transforming how we think about buildings and sustainability. We are moving beyond pioneering green building practices and creating sustainable communities by exploring how our built environments can influence healthier lifestyles and create social connections.

A Strong Foundation

When it opened in 1996, UBC’s C.K. Choi Building was hailed as a leading-edge example of green construction, and it still attracts interest today. Home to the Institute of Asian Research, the 3,000-square-meter building, constructed before LEED green building standards were in place, compromised nothing in its quest to maximize sustainability and set several new benchmarks for building green.

The C.K. Choi Building captures waste heat from the district-energy system and collects rainwater for its landscaping needs. To reduce its energy needs, it was configured for passive ventilation and maximum natural light. These and other initiatives helped the building cut the university’s electrical use by the equivalent of 19 single-family homes. Not only that, it was built with 50-per-cent recycled or recyclable materials, including 20th-century cobblestones, bricks and wooden beams from the nearby Old Armouries building.

Green Building — C.K. Choi Building. Credit: Martin Dee.

The C.K. Choi Building.
Photo credit: Martin Dee

Underground Exchange

UBC Okanagan (UBC-O) has the good fortune of being situated above an underground body of water — dubbed a “geothermal hidden gem”, and for good reason. The aquifer enabled the Okanagan campus to implement a geo-exchange district-energy system (DES) in 2008 — a system that utilizes 10-degree-Celsius groundwater to cool the campus’s academic buildings in the summer and help heat the newly constructed buildings in the winter. The system also provides energy-sharing capabilities to all buildings on the closed-loop system — significantly reducing operational costs, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the campus’s reliance on natural gas. As identified within the Whole Systems Infrastructure Plan (2016), the DES will continue to evolve to meet the future needs of the expanding campus, further increasing its environmental benefits and stewardship.

By incorporating geothermal energy, UBC Okanagan’s district-energy system has significantly reduced the campus’s reliance on natural gas to heat and cool buildings.

UBC Okanagan District Energy System Heat Sources


Renewable Earth Energy


Renewable Hydro Power


Natural Gas Boiler

Energy tune-ups

If engine tune-ups can help cars run more smoothly and efficiently, why not give them to buildings too? After all, just like cars, buildings become less efficient over time, requiring more energy to keep occupants comfortable. In 2010, UBC launched the Building Tune-Up program in partnership with BC Hydro. The partnership involves tweaking the systems of more than 70 core academic buildings to reduce their energy needs and GHG emissions while maintaining — and even improving — comfort. The result? A nine-per-cent reduction in campus energy consumption and GHG emissions.

Blueprint for a greener future

Designed to be the most innovative and high-performance building in North America when it opened in 2011, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) — UBC’s first LEED Platinum-certified building — is UBC’s hub for sustainability and wellbeing. CIRS is home to several sustainability, wellbeing and community engagement research centres and offices. Through close collaborations and partnerships between academic researchers, government agencies, NGOs, community organizations and industry, the CIRS community continues to make contributions that help support sustainable and healthy neighbourhoods, cities and regions.

Video cover
Play Icon

UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability

The new Brock Commons residence’s innovative mass timber construction materials will save 2,432 metric tonnes of CO2 compared to traditional structural materials.

Photo courtesy of and Steven Errico

World’s tallest wood building

When it comes to carbon storage, wood is surprisingly effective. UBC’s new Brock Commons residence, on target for completion in May 2017, has pushed the limits of what’s achievable with wood construction. At 18 storeys, the building is the world’s tallest modern wood building. Not only does the innovative construction mean a savings of 2,432 metric tonnes of CO2 when compared to more traditional structural materials, it was built using sustainably harvested Canadian wood products.

Interested in green building innovation?

Other stories in the series

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners: The UBC Sustainability Initiative and Campus and Community Planning and the many units, departments, and faculties at UBC that helped contribute invaluable information on sustainability for this story.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, online producer; Cynthia Deng, web developer assistant; Margaret Doyle, digital storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC photographer; Michael Kam, web developer; Adrian Liem, manager, digital communications; Mark Pilon, communication designer; Jamil Rhajiak, digital communications specialist; Laura Stobbe, communication designer; Matt Warburton, manager, graphic design; Aida Viziru, web interaction designer. Content writer — Jessica Werb. Copy editor — David Leidl.

Published: May 2017